Ireland: Family courts ‘are stopping children from speaking out’

By Seán McCárthaigh from The Times 14 Mar 2019

Original article can be accessed here.

Children should be given more of a say in family law hearings, a child expert has told politicians.

Geoffrey Shannon, the government’s special rapporteur on child protection, called for reforms to give children the right to be heard in family court.

“There is a distinct lack of provision in Ireland for hearing children,” he told the Oireachtas committee on justice and equality yesterday. Dr Shannon claimed that guardians appointed by the courts often represented children in court, but that this was not always the case. He said that there was no clear guidance for judges meeting children in family law proceedings and that no data was collected on the extent to which judges sought children’s views.

Dr Shannon said: “Courts in Ireland have a duty to hear children and to give due weight to their wishes under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and also under domestic law. Ireland must invest the resources to ensure its court system is fit for purpose.” He recommended that judges should be able to refer couples to skilled personnel for parenting plans, anger management, family therapy and the monitoring of custody and access orders. “Simply making a court order is not sufficient,” he said.

Dr Shannon said that officials from the probation service sat in on every family law case until the late 1980s, when they began to concentrate on criminal law cases. The HSE lacked the resources and specialist training to step in, the committee was told.

“This left a significant gap in support services [for] vulnerable family law clients which has never been filled,” Dr Shannon said, adding that mediation should be considered as an alternative but not “as a cost-saving measure”.

Children repeatedly stated how important it was to have flexibility built into an arrangements so that they could change them if they wished, but they were frequently unable to do so.